finish lines

Ken Rice co-anchors KDKA-TV’s 5, 10 and 11 p.m. news broadcasts. He has been a familiar
on-air personalty in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years.

rice_300VWhat led you to on-camera work?

Growing up in Chicago, the news was always a big deal in my home. My Grandpa Joe lived with us a for a while and he would spend hours at the kitchen table, reading the Chicago Sun-Times or Tribune with a big magnifying glass. And he never missed the evening newscasts, or the Sunday morning shows like Face the Nation, or 60 Minutes. As an immigrant who fled persecution, Joe Rice valued his American citizenship, and being an informed citizen, in a way many of us who were born here might not. He died when I was still in high school, but I think he would have liked to have known that his grandson went on to study journalism in college. I worked in radio news during my first few years at the University of Wisconsin, then transitioned into TV and ended up reporting for the CBS station in Madison. After a few years, Pittsburgh came calling and I’ve been beyond fortunate to work in TV news here for the past 28 years.

Who is the most interesting person you have had a chance to interview?

In 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were locked in a struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Ahead of the PA primary that April, Obama scheduled a rally at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and gave me a few minutes for a one-on-one interview backstage. For what was at stake that spring, the young, first-term senator was  affable and relaxed. During the setup we chatted about Chicago sports teams and our favorite pizza places back in our mutual hometown. When the cameras rolled, I asked him about predictions that the Democrats’ upcoming convention would be deadlocked (stop me if this sounds familiar), with the party’s only hope being to rally behind a unifying figure—perhaps, according to a story that briefly made the rounds, former VP Al Gore.  Sen. Obama laughed this off and thoughtfully handled my other questions about resistance to his candidacy for racial and other reasons, and especially about the incendiary comments made by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Only later did it dawn on me how rare an experience that was for a local news guy—to be able to sit down and pose the most challenging questions I could think of to a man on his way to making history. Grandpa Joe would have thought it was cool.

A lot of movies have attempted to depict broadcast journalism.  What is your favorite and why?

Broadcast News. Albert Brooks as the nervous reporter, flop-sweating his way through his big stint as substitute anchor. William Hurt’s clueless character and the ethical debate over his staged tears. The intensity Holly Hunter brought to her role, inspired by legendary CBS news producer Susan Zirinsky. Fantastic cast and a brilliant job capturing both the seriousness and the occasional silliness of television news.

How has the influx of online media and 24-7 news channels changed the way the way you work?

There was a time when we had all day to craft our stories and then present them on the air at 5, 6 or 11 p.m. It was news by appointment. Of course, no such luxury exists anymore. We are constantly pumping out news on our website and especially through social media. Sure, we still sit down and give you the big picture each night at 5, 6 and 11. But we’re also keeping you up to date on developments all day long.

Tell us about a challenging story you covered that you take pride in.

On a Saturday morning in the spring of 2009, three Pittsburgh police officers were shot and killed in Stanton Heights. The city was shaken. We pre-empted all regular programming that morning and reported the story live as the horrifying details came in. But now, seven years later, what stands out for me even more is the city’s memorial service for the three officers. For hours and hours, we interviewed officers who came from all over the country to pay their respects. We interviewed people who knew the fallen officers and could help our viewers appreciate their lives. What I remember most powerfully is Pittsburgh Police Commander Larry Ross recounting how, in the wake of the tragedy, someone had asked him what makes police officers willing to put themselves in danger, the way Officers Kelly, Mayhle and Sciullo did. “Is it a strong sense of civic duty?,” Ross wondered aloud. “Possibly. Is it to be the champion for the little guy? That’s possible also. Is it to ensure that you have a hand in seeing that justice and fairness are carried out in this world? Yes.” And then he paused. “Is it about the man next to you?” He paused again. “That is what it is about.” Amid all that grief, it felt like sharing this day of remembrance and tribute with our audience was among the most important things I’d been a part of in my career. Maybe in some way, it helped a broken city begin to heal.